By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
Jeff Gordon believes Hendrick Motorsports has reaped the benefits of a Cup Series caliber backup in Josh Berry over the past month.
Sure, it’s easy to say that now given that Berry finished second to teammate Kyle Larson in the Cup Series race at Richmond on Sunday but it would have been easy to pump the brakes on that narrative in the middle of the race when he got spun in traffic due to contact from Ryan Blaney.
Berry, the current Xfinity Series championship contender and decade long pavement Late Model ace, started deep in the field when the starting lineup was set by the rule book resulting from Saturday morning rain showers.
So, starting 30th and mired and deep traffic, Berry wasn’t able to show what his car could do until interim crew chief Tom Gray made a strategic decision that ultimately got his driver clean air before the final two restarts.
Specifically, Gray kept Berry out on older tires while most of the other contenders split the final long green flag run in half with tires, which worked out when a caution waved with 27 laps to go. That allowed Berry to restart on the front row alongside Larson, where he would end the day after a pair of restarts.
“These guys, you know, they thought outside the box, and that’s what it takes in these races,” Berry said. “I think you never know what could happen. If you do the same that everybody around you does, then you’re going to finish with them, and they made a bold call, a couple bold calls — one that kept us on the lead lap early in the race and that one at the end to get us some track position.”
Gordon, who is currently serving as executive vice chairman at Hendrick, has taken an interest and liking to the 32-year-old over the past month. Gordon sat in on the No. 9 team’s radio during his debut at Las Vegas. He was the first to congratulate him on their top-10 at Phoenix, and he gave Berry a hug after the race on Sunday.
“It seems like the longer the race, the better he does,” Gordon said. “We’re really happy with the job that he has done. Certainly, everybody has known his talent watching him in other forms of racing, late models, and the Xfinity Series. You have to put him in other cars with other teams and other people to really see how far he could take it. I think he’s got a future in the Cup Series.”
That meant a lot to Berry, who never even as of two years ago, thought he would be in this position, chasing wins in the iconic No. 9 as Chase Elliott recovers from a March skiing incident.
“Jeff Gordon was my hero when I was a kid,” Berry said. “I mean, it’s pretty amazing, man. One of the first races I remember watching was the ’97 Daytona 500, and that went pretty well for this company. So to be able to drive for them and finish second place, it just really, just exceeds all of my expectations out of this deal.”
Hendrick Motorsports president and general manager Jeff Andrews has also taken a lot of time to work with Berry both at the shop and after races each week — including a lengthy debrief after the race at Atlanta.
Larson also echoed the sentiment of his bosses.
“He has done a phenomenal job filling in,” Larson said. “It’s been nice to have him a part of the debriefs. I feel like he describes his car really well. He seems like he is probably really easy to work with. I’m sure the 9 team probably feels he is easy to work with.
“I’ve enjoyed having him a part of our team throughout Chase’s injury. I hope whenever Chase comes back that Josh gets more opportunity going forward and good equipment because he is a Cup Series caliber driver. He has proven it just in the few races that he has ran.
“He is very, very deserving of being in the Cup Series, and he has worked extremely hard his whole career to get these opportunities.”
And what makes the job he’s done so far all the more impressive, or at least challenging, is that he’s still just two years into an Xfinity Series tenure and just now settling into that role as a top contender in the second-tier series.
Now comes the hurdles of learning a radically different racing platform, which Gordon says has impressed him the most.
“It’s a much different car than what he is used to racing every weekend, and so there’s a lot of things that you have to adapt completely different to,” Gordon said.
“I’m not even sure if Saturday is not hurting him for the Sunday races because the cars are so much different. The sidewall, tires, the rear input… Just from me going from an H-pattern transmission to sequential would throw me off.
“You know, big brakes. Car doesn’t have a lot of downforce. You can’t put the skew in it. There’s a lot of things that are different about what he is doing. So, I love his approach, and it’s turning into results, which I’m sure it’s turning into confidence for him as he continues to go to each track that he is going to be behind the wheel of the car.”